Interview

“If I attend an interfaith dialogue with a person of another faith, but in my heart I am convinced (even if I do not say it out loud) that this other person is going to hell and that I must save him or her by converting him to my faith, then I am not engaging in dialogue, but, rather, in deceit,”….. Irfan A. Omar

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Irfan A. Omar is Associate Professor of Islam and World Religions, Marquette University, Wisconsin, USA. In this interview with Victor Edwin, he reflects on a host of issues related to Islam, Muslims and Interfaith Dialogue.

Q: What does Islam say about dialogue?
A: Islam arose in a milieu where Christianity and Judaism were also present. Naturally, people who became Muslims at that time were aware of many of the figures, saints and prophets that were part of Jewish and Christian heritage. Islam’s view of itself is that it is a continuation of these earlier religions. It recognized them, sought to engage with their adherents and even referred to them as part of the family of religions (ahl-i-kitab). This is the context in which one must locate Islam’s position on dialogue. Islam has been dialogical from its very inception. There have been and are differences between people, and the Quranic formula is to see the differences and diversity of peoples as a strength, rather than as a problem.
The ideology of the “other” usually divides human groups into “them” and “us”, where “them” seem quite different from “us”. This is a false dichotomy. Even though Islam acknowledges differences, it gives the most positive spin on it by calling it a mercy from God. In other words, differences and diversity are seen as a blessing, rather than as a problem. So, the Q. 30:22 says, “And one of His signs is the creation of heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors; most surely there are signs in this for the learned.”
The Qur’an further states that God constituted human beings into communities and nations so as to enable them to recognize one another and, in fact, to learn from one another. This is a very strong suggestion that people should engage with each other in most respectful ways to learn about one another and their faith traditions. The aim is common: to get better at being human and living righteously. Each person, whatever his or her faith, can help himself or herself as well as others in becoming a better person.
One of my teachers, Prof. Mahmoud Ayoub, a Lebanese-American scholar of Islam and interfaith dialogue, mentioned in many of his speeches and writings that diversity is a “divinely instituted law” of our world and no one can change that even if we tried our best to. The Qur’an says this in several places: “Had your Lord willed, He would have made humankind one single community” (see verses Q. 11:118-19; 16:93; 42:8). Therefore, the differences between people are there so that each human being will see “us” in “them” and “them” in “us”, so to speak.
In a way, diversity is humanity’s best measure of itself because it allows one to keep things in perspective. Once the realization occurs that in fundamental terms “they” are no different from “us”, the particularities of each become less significant and the common core of being human can be appreciated.
This appreciation is understood in the Qur’an as a sort of competition to do good works. Thus the Qur’an asserts:
“For each there is a direction to which he (or she) turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together (on the Day of Judgment); surely God has power over all things” (Q. 2:148).
Similarly, Q. 5.48 also emphasizes the diversity of faiths and communities as a strength and invites them to “compete with each other in goodness.”
Another verse repeats the message:
“O humankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, (not that you may despise each other). Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is (one who is) most righteous” (Q. 49:13).
Q: Some people may claim that because of the general Muslim belief that Islam alone is the true, uncorrupted religion, Islam is inimical to dialogue. What do you have to say?
A: Each person has the right to believe in the truth of his way or religious system. Each religion makes such claims. The heart of the matter is what the religion itself says and where it places the emphasis for the believer. The emphasis of the Qur’an is not on requiring from a believer to first and foremost make claims of superiority of the religion but, rather, something very different. The Qur’an asks its reader to take the task of cultivating and practicing humility towards God with utmost seriousness. This is done through pilgrimage, prayer, fasting, etc, and also by showing kindness towards people, which is the product of humility. This allows the believer to give of oneself and share resources with others. This message is made plain in numerous Quranic verses.
Suppose one understands the Quranic message to be one of superiority over other religions, it becomes even more imperative that a believer in the Qur’an would follow the central teachings of the Quran which is basically asking one to be humble on earth, which would make the belief in superiority somewhat unnecessary. The Qur’an (e.g. 22:69) is clear on the subject of making judgments of this kind:
“God will judge on the day of resurrection on matters that you [people of different religions] differ.”
Based on numerous verses in the Qur’an which speak of our responsibility, one can say that for each believer and each human being (no matter their religion) the task is to live righteously, which includes refraining from judging others and their religions.
Q: Some people may claim that since Islam is a missionary religion, and since Muslims are commanded to engage in da‘wah, Muslims cannot genuinely engage in dialogue. They may contend that if Muslims believe that other religions are false or corrupted, they cannot live in harmony with people of other faiths. What is your response?
A: Both Islam and Christianity (among others) are believed to be “missionary” religions. The question applies equally to both. In my reading, numerous Christian scholars and practitioners have promoted interfaith dialogue while remaining true to their Christian faith. Some of them believe that there is no conflict between mission and dialogue. Here one has to refer to interpretation of the sacred scripture to discern what it means by the word “mission”. Does it mean scoring points with other faiths over who gets more converts? Or does it mean practicing one’s faith in the best way one can? If “mission” means to “live our faith” in an exemplary way, then I think that dialogue should be part of that life. Hence, there is no contradiction between “mission” and “dialogue”.
Da‘wah and dialogue are not mutually contradictory as explained above. Da‘wah in the Qur’an is not the same as the notion of “mission” as understood by many Christians. Again, in both religions, these terms can be interpreted inclusively and exclusively. Even among Muslims there are different ways in which they understand the notion of da‘wah. One of the most plausible is to share one’s faith with others. Conversion is not up to us—that is a matter of the heart, and only God has control over hearts. Therefore, one can share one’s faith and still engage in respectful dialogue.
The key is to be honest and clear about one’s intentions with those whom one engages. If I attend an interfaith dialogue with a person of another faith but in my heart I am convinced (even if I do not say it out loud) that this other person is going to hell and that I must save him or her by converting him to my faith, then I am not engaging in dialogue, but, rather, in deceit. Interfaith dialogue requires one to be present and to listen and to learn from the other. This does not mean one has to change one’s religion or even to agree with the other person. Dialogue only requires two things for each dialogue partner: to respect each other and to listen to each other. This way, each person gets the same respect and the same opportunity to present his or her view of faith.
Even the Qur’an says that conversion is not our business; we can only tell others about the teachings of the Qur’an. But one would have to first know and also put into practice in one’s own life what the Qur’an teaches in order to tell others about it in a convincing way. If one practices what the Qur’an teaches, one would be less worried about others’ “incorrect” practice, and more interested in being ethical and respectful towards them. Da‘wah is not antithetical to dialogue if one understands it to be primarily coming through one’s own example.
Q: Some people may say that while Islam can tolerate other People of the Book, it has no such tolerance for others—‘polytheists’ such as Hindus, Buddhists etc., and that Islam gives them just two choices—death or conversion to Islam. Hence, they may contend, Islam does not envisage any possibility for dialogue and harmonious relations with people who are not considered by Muslims to be Ahl-e Kitab. What do you have to say?
A: As far as Islam is concerned, the following resources may help us understand the call for dialogue as an imperative for Muslims. In the Qur’an, first comes the acknowledgement of the previous scriptures. Thus Q. 10:94 reads, “if you are in doubt concerning that which We (God) have sent to you then enq scriptures before you.”
This is a confirmation of the previous messages and as such acknowledges the close relationship that exists between the Jewish, Christian and the Islamic messages.
The Qur’an elsewhere (e.g. Q. 2:285) notes that ALL of the messages from God are united at the core of their teachings and no distinction should be made between them; they are expressions of the “primordial truth” and are all from the same divine source. While each of these prophets and messengers came from their own peoples and spoke in their own languages, they nevertheless upheld the same core principles as Prophet Muhammad, who was the recipient of the revelation that became the Qur’an. This means that other religions which are not mentioned in the Qur’an may as well be divinely “revealed”. But we must not impose this terminology on these religions and develop language and lexicon to study and refer to other religions in the way they want to be referred to and how they see themselves. The Quranic acknowledgment helps Muslims maintain a respectful attitude towards other religions.
An important Quranic verse which is repeated twice addresses this very issue of the criteria for acceptance by God. Q. 2.62 reads: “surely those who have faith, the Jews, Christians and Sabians, and those who have faith in God and the last day and perform works of righteousness, will have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor will they grieve.” It appears again in Q. 5:69 with slight variation (reverses the order of two groups, “Christians and Sabians”). According to a number of Muslim scholars, including Prof. Ayoub, the first of these was revealed at the beginning of Prophet Muhammad’s career in Madinah and again towards the end of his prophetic career, which suggests that its message is an overriding one, that it defines Islam’s attitude towards other religions and their adherents.
The above acknowledgment of other religions is followed by an “invitation” to other peoples of faith. Q. 29:46 reads, “Do not dispute with the People of the Book (ahl-i kitab) except in the fairest manner. . .and say, ‘We have faith in that which was revealed to us and that which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one God; to Him we are submitters (muslims)’” (also see Q. 16:125).
Here is one other verse which speaks even more clearly on the matter:
“Say you: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between one and another of them, and we bow to God (in Islam)” (Q. 2:136).
Q: From an Islamic perspective, do you think it possible for Muslims to respect other religions (as distinct from respecting followers of these religions as fellow human beings), especially since many Muslims believe that religions other than Islam are false or corrupted?
A: I think one cannot respect a person without respecting his or her religion. From the answers above it is clear that Muslims are asked by the Qur’an not to judge others and their religions. Muslims are asked by the Qur’an to respectfully engage in dialogue in order to exchange and learn; Muslims are NOT asked to agree with anyone’s religious beliefs or to seek to try and change others. Muslims are asked to maintain the beliefs as outlined in the Qur’an and to practice them. Thus, according to the Qur’an, Muslims must respect (and, if necessary, respectfully disagree with) other religions and their followers and even those who do not follow a religion such as secularists, agnostics and atheists.
Q: What, in your view, should be the basis of interfaith dialogue—the basic common consensus that brings people of different faiths together to dialogue in the first place?
A: The Quranic view is given above: the basis for dialogue is simply that we are asked by God to seek knowledge of God and of ourselves. We cannot do that without collaborating with others—which is dialogue. So, the basis for dialogue is our common humanity and our call from our respective religions to learn and live righteously and work together to create peace for all.
Q: What do you think should be the purpose of interfaith dialogue? 
A: The purpose, in addition to what I mentioned, is that one should consider the Quranic view that our main task is to live righteously, and we cannot do that until and unless we learn to live for more than just ourselves, our family, our clan. We must consider others’ rights on us. In Islam, it is one of the key basis for “salvation” that we must not violate the rights of others, including their right to expect and even demand help from us if they are in distress. So, one of the basic purposes of dialogue is to collaborate with each other in doing good works, which includes working to promote peace and justice nonviolently.
Numerous Islamic scholars (if I made a list of them, it would cover many pages!), past and present, have argued that the Qur’an makes a strong case for dialogue across religious, cultural, national and social boundaries. It further identifies the primary modality for interaction—that is, collaboration between religious communities toward a common goal of establishing peace and justice. A cursory look at the history of dialogue between Muslims and Christians and also between Muslims and Jews will reveal that we have come a long way in building a foundation for dialogue. But with the kind of world we are living in today, it is also obvious that we have a long way to go.
In the context of our troubled world today, the Quranic acknowledgement of, and invitation to, other religions discussed above may be viewed as a way to create a true unity of difference in this otherwise homogenizing globe. As globalization seeks to erase differences, Islamic principles can be seen as seeking to safeguard them. The religious and other kinds of differences are real and they are a blessing from God. What we need is not eradication of differences but even greater acknowledgement and respect for them. In this, believers and activists from different religions may find strength and inspiration to work together for justice and peace, which every humanistic and religious tradition seeks to uphold. It can be argued that the cause of justice is greater than any other cause in this world. The Qur’an instructs Muslims to uphold justice at all costs. Q. 4.135 reads:
“O you who believe, stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor – for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts) lest you swerve, and if you distort or decline to do justice, indeed God is well-acquainted with all that you do.”
These and several other verses in the Qur’an imply that universal principles are greater than communal and even family interests. There is a clear injunction here to collaborate with all those who stand up for justice and peace. Therefore, in order to work for justice, Muslims must make alliances with all those who, likewise, are called towards peace and justice by their respective traditions. They must search for common ground and work with them to strive for these important goals.
Q: In the ‘pre-modern’ period in India, there were scores of Muslim and Hindu spiritual seekers who entered into what, to use a modern term, ‘dialogue’ with each other—for instance, many Bhaktas and Sufis. They interacted with each other, established close personal relations, learnt from each other and, in many cases, even lived together. Some of them accepted spiritual preceptors from the other ‘community’. What do you feel about this sort of ‘dialogue’?
A: It is a form of dialogue like many others. It helped maintain the idea that for God, external ways matter little and that the real point is to “surrender” the inner self to Him. The Qur’an says so in many different ways and in almost every passage, through phrases such as “God knows what is in your heart”, and “God is All-knowing” and wherever it explains what a true believer is like.
(Victor Edwin, a Jesuit priest and student of Islam, is based in Delhi. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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